Author: Audrey Driscoll

Writer, gardener, lapsed cataloguer, and author of the Herbert West Series.

Last Chance Summer Sale

August 15th through 22nd: Books 2, 3, and 4 of the Herbert West Series are on sale for .99 each.

The regular price is 2.99 or 3.99, so this is a bargoon.*

AMAZON USA

AMAZON UK

From ancient Arkham to the agony of the Great War, from Acadie to the islands of the West Coast, a brilliant but amoral physician is subjected to travails and entanglements, to become a source of healing — and of peril.

 

* “Noun, Canadian informal.  A product or service bought or offered for sale much more cheaply than is usual or expected; a bargain.” Oxford Dictionaries

 

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Book Review: The Writer’s Pen by K. Morris

Kevin Morris’s latest collection of poems is now available on pre-order at Amazon UK.

Here is my review of an advance copy…

This latest collection by Kevin Morris consists of 44 pithy reflections on life, death, and passing time. Some of the subjects and themes are the same as in Morris’s earlier collection, My Old Clock I Wind – nature, the seasons, clocks, sex, and mortality. A group of longer poems explores what might be called current affairs.

The tone of these works is darker and more serious than the earlier collection. I recognized no humorous poems, although a wry humor is present in some of them, such as “Libidinous,” in which the poet wonders about the activities of nymphs in a budding wood. “Summer” contains the delightful lines “Now ’tis the fashion / For short frocks / And tiny socks.”

I especially appreciated a sequence of several poems in which the poet strolls through a churchyard under light and shade, contemplating mortality in an almost cheerful way. In “To and Fro,” he says “Why should I care? / For I will not be there / To know.”

Several poems explore the poet’s ambivalence about politics and political correctness. “Legacy (a poem on the late Enoch Powell)” is one such. Morris expresses mixed feelings about Powell, while acknowledging that “An intelligent man / Frequently can / Do more harm / Than a stupid one.” “When a Monster Dies” and “The Monster’s Son” are particularly intriguing, pointing out in a few brief lines that every person is multi-dimensional and complex.

Two poems – “Rhodes” and “I Shower” – contain the phrase “feet of clay.” In the first, it’s used as a caution against facile judgmentalism, and in the second as a reminder that “the beast in man” is ever-present and not easily expunged.

The Writer’s Pen and Other Poems is one poet’s way of dealing with life’s complications and contradictions. The poems display a resigned acceptance that doesn’t quite cross the line into pessimism. I’m guessing Morris appreciates conversations with friends, in pubs or over dinner and drinks. Reading this collection of short, accessible verses is like sitting down with a thoughtful friend to talk about life, death, and the ways of the world. The poems are brief, but Morris’s skilful use of words makes them worth reading more than once, and contemplating their meanings in moments of quiet.

 

 

My Tough Plants #3: Olympic Mullein

The first two plants in this series could be described as medium-sized. They don’t look like much from a distance. The Olympic Mullein is different. It’s big and striking. It’s architectural. I’ve seen mulleins more than 10 feet tall. Even so, it’s relatively skinny for its height, making it a perfect “statement” plant in a bed of shorter subjects, a visual exclamation point.

May 17, 2014

Mullein rosette from above

Most mulleins, including the Olympic one, are biennials. They spend their first year as a “rosette” of large fuzzy leaves radiating from a centre point at ground level. This rosette can take up a fair bit of space — up to 3 feet in diameter. The big leaves can overwhelm any small, delicate plants nearby, so keep that in mind when siting mulleins.

 

 

May 31, 2014

Olympic mulleins, Verbascum olympicum

In the second spring, drama begins. A single bloom stalk emerges from the middle of the rosette and rises skyward. You can see it lengthen from one day to the next, shooting out lush leaves topped by a vaguely phallic structure consisting of the immature flower stalks. By the time this unfolds into a glorious mass of yellow, the plant attains its full height, anywhere from six to ten feet. Bees love the flowers. A plant in full bloom on a hot July day buzzes with their activity.

I must have grown my first Olympic mulleins here from seed, back in the early 1990s. Since then, I haven’t needed to buy more seed or new plants. At some point, I acquired a plant of white mullein (Verbascum chaixii ‘Album’). It’s smaller and daintier (if you can call any mullein dainty). It has a single spike of flowers, rather than the broom-like structure of the Olympic mullein. The flowers, of course, are white and the stamens are purple, unlike the Olympic mullein, whose flowers are entirely yellow. After a couple of years I began noticing smaller plants with single bloom spikes and yellow flowers with purple stamens. The two types must have gotten together and hybridized. Plants do stuff like that. Unlike their Olympic cousins, the white mullein and the yellow + purple hybrids are perennials.

White mullein, Verbascum chaixii "Album" with bee

White Mullein with Bee

Another noteworthy mullein I’ve seen in other gardens is Verbascum bombyciferum, silver mullein. It’s not quite as big as Olympic mullein, and its leaves are heavily felted with white fuzz, a distinctly attractive feature. I’ve never managed to find a spot for it here, but I mention it because it was a favourite of that estimable gardener and garden writer, the late Henry Mitchell. He claimed the Latin name meant “carrying a bomb,” something I’ve never felt the need to verify.

Mulleins are trouble-free plants, drought-tolerant, deer-resistant, utterly reliable, at least in my garden with its sandy soil and dry summers. Even the maple roots and shade don’t faze them, although they do best in the sunniest spots in the garden. They don’t need staking.

Olympic mullein, Verbascum olympicum, second bloom

Dependable mullein with second flush of bloom

Like many other tough plants, mulleins are prolific seed producers. Before I figured out a management method, a lot of seeds were deposited in my garden. That seed bank, probably supplemented to some extent by the odd stalk that escapes deadheading, has kept me in mulleins for a quarter century. They seem to form new buds even as the first lot of flowers fades, so I’m often surprised to see fresh flowers on a plant I thought was finished blooming. I suspect this is a way to fool the gardener into delaying deadheading and giving the plant time to ripen seeds from the earliest blooms. Anyway, once they truly are finished blooming, all you have to do is decapitate them. Cut the main stem just below the cluster of bloom stalks. Snip — done. It’s probably best to dispose of the spent stalks somewhere other than the compost pile, unless you don’t mind mullein seedlings popping up from the compost. Young plants are easily transplanted while small enough to dig up with taproots intact. Move them in spring and revel in their gorgeousness the following summer.

November 2012

Maple Leaf and Mullein

The decapitated plants cheerfully put out a fresh crop of bloom stalks, smaller and shorter than the original ones, and eventually a new batch of flowers for late summer and autumn. I’ve had mulleins in bloom as late as November. Eventually, though, it’s all over. Like all biennials, Olympic mullein plants die at the end of the second year. Once the leaves are dead and the plants look ugly, I cut the stalks at the base, using a small saw, because they are quite thick and woody. But I know there are half a dozen young plants waiting to do their thing the following year, and mullein seeds lurking in the soil.

 

June 29, 2013

Mullein (Verbascum olympicum)

Cut-down bloom stalks of lambs' ears, mullein, delphinium on Pond Bench, dead flowers

Beauty in Death

A macabre title for something innocuous. The other day, I cut down flowering stalks of perennials that were past their best, as part of ongoing garden maintenance and cleanup. There were lambs’ ears (Stachys byzantina), delphinium, mullein (Verbascum olympicum), blue fescue grass, achillea.

Bundling them together, I noticed how beautiful the textures and colours still were, in these technically dead flowers. I laid them on the cedar trunk bench, which contributed to the photos with its own colours and textures — the grain of the weathered wood, the dry moss and lichen growing on it.

Cut-down bloom stalks of lambs' ears, mullein, delphinium, achillea, blue fescue on Pond Bench. Dead flowers.

This seems a fitting entry into August, a month when the garden becomes dry and rattling, brown around the edges, but still with its beauties.

hot air balloon on ground rainbow colours

Preparing to Launch

I will publish the ebook version of my next novel, until now referred to as “the work in progress,” in November. I’m not sure when in November, but definitely in that month.

The book, now titled She Who Comes Forth, will be available for pre-order early in October.

September and October will be busy months for me, but right now, while the garden bakes in midsummer heat, I’m doing the following:

  • Finalizing the cover image. I’ve narrowed it down to seven possibilities. Yes, that’s not very narrow, but I have a couple more months to brood over them.
  • Finalizing the book description (called by some a “blurb,” but I think that word sounds dumb; and besides, it actually refers to a brief endorsement of a book by someone noteworthy. You see blurbs on those annoying pages that precede the title page in mass-market paperbacks). I have both a short description (really short, i.e. 60 words) and a longer one (350 words). I’ll be adding one or the other to the back matter of my existing ebooks.
  • Reading all the “how to launch your book” blog posts I’ve bookmarked.
  • Listening to Mark Coker’s Smart Author podcasts. Even though I’ve published several books, I’m sure I can learn something valuable from these programs. There are 16 episodes, all available at Smashwords and at a multitude of podcast sites. You can find them here.
  • Writing something new. Yes! A couple of years ago I published four short supplements to the Herbert West Series. I’ve decided to write three more and make all seven available as a collection, replacing the four separate stories.
  • Trying to figure out how to summon some rain to this parched part of the world.

 

 

 

 

Hot air balloon image courtesy of Pixabay

 

Rose campion Lychnis coronaria white form with lavender, pale pink achillea and foliage of Dahlia "Bishop of Llandaff"

My Tough Plants #2: Rose Campion

Rose Campion… Sounds like a good name for a romantic heroine. But no, it’s one of the common names of a plant, another tough, almost-weedy one that does well in my garden.

Lychnis coronaria Rose campion with Linaria purpurea Purple toadflaxThis common name, although charming, doesn’t really suit the white-flowered form (see the featured image at the top). Maybe that’s better represented by “Bridget-in-her-bravery,” although that’s quite a mouthful. I tend to call it Lychnis coronaria, or simply lychnis. That’s not quite right either, since (according to Wikipedia), the official Latin name is now Silene coronaria. Wikipedia also cites other common names: mullein-pink, Bloody William, and lamp-flower.

This is another relatively short-lived perennial that seeds heavily. Fully grown, it’s between one and three feet tall (30-100 cm). The growth habit is basal clumps of grey-green leaves with a sort of suede texture, similar to lambs’ ears (Stachys byzantina) but not as fuzzy. In spring they send up flowering stalks and bloom mainly in June and July. The flowers come in two main colours — bright magenta-red and pure, bright white. I’ve read there are pink forms and a white-with-pink-eye combination, but I’ve not seen either of those.

Deadheaded flowers of Lychnis coronaria Rose campion

This is the result of an hour’s worth of deadheading. That’s a 750 gram yogurt container.

As with purple toadflax, to get the best from this plant, you have to deadhead. And unfortunately, deadheading rose campion means snipping off each flower individually, using scissors or small clippers. Each plant produces dozens of flowers, so weekly deadheading sessions are needed. That keeps them blooming into late summer and prevents copious seeding.

Close-up of deadheaded flowers of Rose campion Lychnis coronaria

Spent flowers (and potential seed pods)

The spent flowers go through a limp stage and then quickly become knot-like seed pods. Left to their own devices, the pods ripen over several weeks. When mature, they open up at the top, like tiny urns poised to spill hundreds of seeds.

I generally deadhead flower-by-flower into August. By then, the plants are slowing down. They produce fewer buds and the bloom stalks start to look thin. At this stage it’s best to cut them down at the base, leaving the basal clump of leaves to finish out the season.  In spots with a bit of moisture and/or shade, it’s possible to cut the stems by half in August for a fresh batch of late flowers in September. Because of the rather tedious deadheading requirement, I recommend keeping the number of plants relatively small (no more than 10) and situating them where you can get up close to trim off the flowers as they fade.

Here, rose campion looks fairly good all winter, although older plants may have quantities of dead leaves that resemble chamois leather. At my place there’s no shortage of rose campion, so I don’t hesitate to yank out any that are past their best. It copes well with the occasional snowfall and winter temperatures of -5 to -10 C (10-20 F).

July 2, 2012

White Lychnis coronaria and unknown (to me) Euphorbia

Lychnis coronaria performs best in sunny spots, but is quite tolerant of light or partial shade. It doesn’t mind dry conditions, sandy soil, and competing tree roots. The white flowers are rather insistently bright, so a large number of plants in one spot can be too much of a good thing. The combination of white flowers and greyish foliage is elegant, especially with the sharp chartreuse, such as that of euphorbias.  The magenta form looks best with other strong colours, rather than pale pastels. The two colour forms look fine planted together.

Rose campion Lychnis coronaria, magenta and white formsRose campion is of no interest to deer and needs minimal watering. I suspect it prefers well-drained soils, although I’ve seen references to it growing well in clay soils. You can find them here (see the comments) along with more info about rose campion.

The Egyptian Book of the Dead and book rock

Chapter Titles: Why They’re a Good Idea

In the past, novels had titles for each chapter, sort of like this: Chapter the XXIIIrd, in which Lady Jane drops her handkerchief in the garden and bumps into the wrong person while looking for it.

Not any more. In books — and ebooks — of the present day I generally see Chapter 1, Chapter 2, etc. Or simply 1, 2, 3. Sometimes it’s Roman numerals, (I, II, III) or spelled out numbers (One, Two, Three), but that’s about it.

Maybe it’s time to revisit chapter titles.

Books for children have never abandoned chapter titles, and with good reason. They help a reader navigate the book if he or she needs to go back and check something already read in a  previous chapter. And chapter titles are a sort of sneak preview, tantalizing without revealing too much.

Having read and published a number of ebooks in the past several years, I’ve realized that looking back for something you’ve already read isn’t easy. Sure, you can search words, but if you want to find a particular scene without a distinctive keyword, you pretty much have to try page numbers at random. That’s harder on the eyes than flipping pages in a printed book. I’ve added linked tables of contents to my ebooks, but that nice list of numbered chapters helps the reader only if they happen to remember that the scene they’re trying to find was in Chapter 5 or whatever.

Chapter titles, being memorable and mnemonic, make it easier to find one’s way around a book. Even short or cryptic titles (The Summons, An Encounter, Danger!) are better landmarks for the reader than numbers alone.

Then there’s that sneak preview aspect. Writers labour over their brief book descriptions to make them enticing without revealing too much. Chapter titles can be a whimsical supplement to the book description. Because they appear in the first few pages, chapter titles are seen by potential readers in ebook samples and previews.

My work in progress, She Who Comes Forth, frequently makes reference to The Egyptian Book of the Dead by E.A. Wallis Budge. It’s not surprising that its sixteen chapter titles were inspired by those in Budge’s work, such as “The Chapter of the Pillow” or “The Chapter of Not Dying a Second Time.”

Here are my chapter titles for She Who Comes Forth

1 The Chapter of Experiencing Departure and Disappointment

2 The Chapter of Experiencing Insult and Injury

3 The Chapter of Entering the Tomb of a King

4 The Chapter of Undertaking a Difficult Task

5 The Chapter of Meeting One Who Is Beautiful

6 The Chapter of Intoxication, of Tardiness and Triumph

7 The Chapter of Eating and Drinking in a Place of Mystery

8 The Chapter of Rising into Air and Falling to Earth

9 The Chapter of Experiencing Unpleasantness and Being Driven Out

10 The Chapter of Making a Crossing to the West

11 The Chapter of Seeking the Right-Handed One

12 The Chapter of a Passage in Darkness

13 The Chapter of the Red Dress and the Sharp Blade

14 The Chapter of the Heart and the Egg

15 The Chapter of Speaking the Truth and Hiding It

16 The Chapter of Going Forth

I had to be in the right frame of mind to make these up — not too serious. The idea is to hint, rather than specify.

After the heavy work of writing and rewriting, making up chapter titles is a way to celebrate and ornament your creation. I recommend it!

 

New Moon Sale: THE HERBERT WEST SERIES COMPLETE

Crescent MoonYesterday was the July new moon, which is as good an excuse as any to offer The Herbert West Series Complete ebook box set at reduced prices until the first quarter moon appears.

July 13th through 19th

Amazon USA only

All four volumes at $1.99 to $5.99. Regular price is $7.99. Early birds get the best deals.

AMAZON USA

 

The Herbert West Series

Moon image from Pixabay

 

Linaria purpurea flowers

My Tough Plants #1: Purple Toadflax (Linaria purpurea)

My garden, as I’ve said many times, is a 50-by-120-foot suburban lot with the usual house, driveway, garage and paved walks. Among those elements are half a dozen beds or borders containing combinations of shrubs, perennials, and self-sown annuals. There are also small areas of grass (sometimes called “the lawns,” although that sounds rather grand).

The soil is a light sandy loam, with good drainage. The climate is semi-Mediterranean, which means mild wet winters and dry summers. Recent summers have been drier and warmer than normal. Most of the plantings are affected to some extent by four large Norway maples, a big birch and a medium-sized Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima).

In this difficult situation — dry, rooty shade — a few reliable tough plants perform quite well, because they are tough and almost weedy. Properly managed, they can be quite ornamental. I plan to write several posts this summer about how I use these plants in my garden.

First up is Purple Toadflax (Linaria purpurea). Apparently, the leaves resemble those of the flax plant, which explains the “flax” part of the common name and the “lin” (linum is Latin for “flax”) in the genus name. I’m not sure where the toad comes in.

The plant grows between 1 and 3 feet  (30 cm  to 1 metre) tall. In shade, it can reach 4 feet. It’s somewhat slender, so inserts itself easily among other plants without crowding. Most plants have between 4 and 10 stems. The stems are stiff and never need staking.

Linaria purpurea foliage and flowersThe individual flowers are like tiny snapdragons. They cluster in spiky racemes at the tops of the stems. The standard colour is medium to dark purple. I’ve had a few plants whose flowers are purple and white, but they’re rare. Pink flowers are more common than the bicolours. They’re a fairly pale pink, though; their main interest comes from being different from the norm. The standard purple is a fine colour, contrasting well with the grey-blue-green of the slender leaves.

Linaria purpurea flowers with bumblebeePurple toadflax is of no interest to deer. It grows well and blooms reliably in dry, rooty soil and shade. It thrives in sunny spots. Bumblebees love it.

What’s not to like? Well, I did say it’s a quasi-weed. Left to its own devices, it blooms in May and June. The flowers are succeeded by seed pods that look like tiny green beads. At this point flowering stops. Seeds ripen by summer’s end and scatter when the plants are disturbed. The following spring hundreds of seedlings emerge, producing more toadflaxes than anyone wants. An untended patch of toadflax is reminiscent of gravel parking lots, not garden borders.

Linaria purpurea fall foliageRigorous deadheading is the way to curb the plant’s weedy tendencies. Clip off the spikes of bead-like seed pods as soon as they form. You can either cut each thin side-stem or wait until the whole raceme has pretty much finished flowering and cut the main stem just beneath the flower cluster. The plant will put out new flowering side-stems and keep blooming all summer. A bonus of this process is that the foliage of plants growing in sunny spots turns interesting shades of pink in autumn.

The trick is to deadhead before the seeds ripen. Inevitably, a few plants escape my notice. I discover them when I’m doing fall cleanup, by which time the tiny seeds scatter far and wide. A desperation measure for this situation is to carefully clip the seed-bearing top of each stem and transfer it into a pail or similar container, preventing seed scatter. I suspect semi-ripened seeds are able to finish maturing in the compost pile, so it’s best not to compost them unless you’re sure your heap achieves temperatures high enough to kill seeds. Mine doesn’t.

This is why I know how well toadflax blends into plantings. I don’t remember ever actually planting it. I go through the beds in spring and remove excessive seedlings and badly-positioned plants.

Toadflax is a short-lived perennial. Individual plants persist for two or three seasons. Eventually, they get woody at the base and perform poorly. By that time, though, there are more than enough young plants to replace them.

I wouldn’t recommend purple toadflax for mass plantings. The skinny, diagonally placed leaves produce a visually tedious herringbone tweed effect. Besides, this mass planting effect is what you get when you let toadflax self-sow with abandon. I like them best among other plants with contrasting leaf shapes.

More info about Purple Toadflax is available at the Missouri Botanical Garden site and Wikipedia.